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Unions Have Been Under Attack For Decades, But Michigan Just Gave Them A Big Win

On Friday, Michigan repealed an 11-year-old law that weakened union power in the workplace. Known as the “Right to Work” Act, this type of legislation has been around ever since at least 1943and Michigan is now one of only a handful of states to have ever repealed it.

When Michigan’s law was passed in 2012, the state was firmly in Republican hands. The party controlled the governorship, Senate and House of Representatives after riding the Tea Party wave to power. Conversely, this repeal comes just months after the Democratic Party – which has long aligned itself with the unions – scored its own trifecta for the first time in about four decades. Meanwhile, unions achieved theirs in 2022 greatest popularity since 1965. However, partisanship could play a role in the abolition of the right to work, as could union love.

Because every worker covered by a union contract receives their benefits, unions in the private sector are often allowed to collect fees from these employees regardless of whether they join the union. But that 1947 Taft-Hartley Act allowed states to pass laws — so-called “right-to-work” laws — that would end the practice, and a spate of states have actually passed them.

The main effect of the legislation is to weaken unions in the states where they are passed. As workers can reap the benefits of unionization without paying for it, a classic emerges economic “free rider” problem. Why pay union dues when you can still get the benefits? As a result, unions often have fewer resources to organize and negotiate.

Many states They passed their right-to-work laws in 1947, right after the Taft-Hartley Act, and they were typically southeastern, southwestern, and/or heavily agricultural states. The laws also played against racism, anti-Semitism and anti-Communist tendencies in these states, according to a report by Michael Pierce, historian at the University of Arkansas. Pierce describes how Vance Muse, a pioneer of work-right laws and chairman of the Christian American Association, described the laws as a way to prevent strikes and empower police to support Jim Crow and oppress black people.

In the 2010s, as Republicans took power in statehouses nationwide, there was a renewed push to pass work-right legislation in new states and organizations like the American Legislative Exchange Council provided model legislation. Since 2012, Indiana, Michigan, Wisconsin, West Virginia, and Kentucky have passed these types of laws, and Alabama and Tennessee have passed the right to work constitutional changes, making them harder to tip over. Before Michigan’s repeal, 27 states had statutes on the right to work, constitutional amendments, or both.

The Supreme Court ruled similarly in 2018 employees in the public service Employees covered by a collective bargaining agreement did not have to pay union dues. That ruling, combined with state-level right-to-work laws, has created a difficult legal environment for unions and weakened their power, said Sharon Block, executive director of the Center for Work and a Just Economy at Harvard University. “I think it affected the numbers, but it also affected the resources,” she said.

This became clear when new laws came into force. Unlike the South, Wisconsin, Michigan, and Indiana were relatively heavily unionized. But several studies showed The Union density declined in most of these states after the passage of right-to-work legislation relative to other similar states, even accounting for the Great Recession. There is also some evidence that such laws lower wages And Employee bonus in states that have adopted them.

Proponents of right-to-work laws have long held that decreasing union power in a state will attract employers and lead to more jobs, and the benefits of additional employment lift people out of poverty And increase job satisfaction. “There are well-known stories, particularly in the southern states, that say, ‘Well, we’re going to give you a number of subsidies to support your investment, and we’re also going to make sure there’s no union,'” Thomas Lemieux said. an economist at the University of British Columbia who has studied the recent spate of right-to-work legislation. However, studies suggest that this is not the case led to wage increases or more employee protection in these states. A common criticism of many studies showing the benefits of right-to-work laws is that they do not take into account all of the other factors that contribute to this could lead to economic and employment growth. “It’s certainly fair to have a debate about what the costs and benefits of unionizing are,” Lemieux said.

Lemieux said the jobs created tend not to include the benefits that unionized jobs bring because workers have little bargaining power. In states like Michigan, income inequality has increased as union density has decreased; This appears to be because the presence of trade unions tends to reduce the number of households in general up and down the income scale. Union presence can also signal support for other government policies that benefit workers and provide an opportunity to organize around them, said David Kemper, senior government policy coordinator at the Economic Policy Institute, a left-leaning one Think tank that supports unions. In general, the right to work applies perform worse on a range of subjects, from wages to workplace safety conditions to political participation, according to a report by the Illinois Economic Policy Institute. and the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign Middle Class Renewal Project.

Perhaps this is why Michigan Democrats were quick to scrap the state’s right to work: weakened unions are less able To support Democratic candidates, which explains why both Republicans support anti-union laws and Michigan Democrats have been keen to repeal them. Also in Illinois the legislature recently passed amending workers’ rights in their state constitution, preventing future right-to-work laws from being passed. And those changes point to future protections for unions in states where Democrats gain control of state government.

“I think success is contagious, success can breed success, and it gives workers confidence that it’s possible to buck the trends of the last few decades,” Block said.



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